4 challenges to serving dinner at school

Published in FSD K-12 Spotlight

By 
Katie Fanuko, Associate Editor

cafeteria dinner service

Throughout the country, an increasing number of K-12 districts are providing dinner at school, as administrators and operators see a viable way to ensure all students have continued access to healthy meals. However, providing an additional daypart isn’t without challenges in scheduling, paperwork and administration.

“This is a great program and everyone can benefit from it, but sometimes people want to jump in too quickly,” says Allison Monbleau, a foodservice director at School District of Palm Beach County in Florida. “It’s best to start slowly and work with the administration.”

Below, operators share the issues they faced in developing an evening meal program and how they were able to overcome them.

1. Challenge: Organizing labor for another daypart

When developing a dinner meal program at Oakland Unified School District in 2011-12, Director Jennifer LeBarre had to line up labor for the additional meal. “We were utilizing a different type of staff person who, according to the contract, couldn’t cook but they could reheat and serve… so how did that work?” she says. LeBarre added a half hour of time to her lunch cooks’ schedule to accommodate preparing diner meals that could be heated and served.

At Austin Independent School District, Director Anneliese Tanner boosts the hours of part-time staff members to handle the additional prep. After lunch service, the part-timers clock out of their National School Lunch Program shift and log additional meals prep hours under the Child Food Program, which covers after school meals. That allows the department to avoid overtime pay, Tanner says.

Student athletes eat their dinners after 5 pm. Instead of extending labor hours, Tanner relies on reimbursable grab-and-go meals provided by her distributor. The meals are shipped to each school and placed in a locked cooler which coaches can access and dole out in the schools’ cafeteria.

2. Challenge: Creating variety for additional menus

LeBarre also wanted to create an evening meal that was distinctly different from lunch fare. So, she nixed pizza and burgers for more homestyle items like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

From a logistical standpoint, the difficulty was figuring out how to integrate more recipes and ingredients into the weekly rotation.

To streamline the process, she takes a cue from restaurants and builds multiple meals around specific, complementary ingredients. “It’s just trying to bring in those practices… when you know you’re going to have a special and you integrate those ingredients into the whole week,” she says.

3. Challenge: Coordinating the best time to serve meals

At School District of Palm Beach County, Monbleau found that coordinating meal service at each of her schools was initially a challenge, as the foodservice department originally wanted to serve meals around 4:30 pm. However, after speaking with administrators, she learned that this time frame could disrupt some programs. As a result, some schools serve meals directly after school and others serve at 4:00 pm to better coincide with students’ activities. “You can’t make this a cookie cutter program to work in every single school,” she says. “You really need to work individually with the administration.”

4. Challenge: Managing additional paperwork

Another hurdle for LaBarre was handling the increased paperwork that results from two additional audits when providing evening meal service. “There’s so much paperwork that the child food program has compared to the NSLP, which I think is a problem because it’s the same type of service,” she says. The surplus administrative work bogged down LeBarre’s ability to grow the program to other schools in the district.

However, she was eventually able to hire a supervisor to handle the program’s requirements, act as its main contact with vendors and promote its growth. “That has allowed us to identify more schools that want to start the program and be able to do some recruitment,” she says.

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